Friday, February 6, 2009

Crisis in the crisis: looking at the situation of the African diaspora

Original article (in french)appeared 05-02-2009 in Le messager: Crise dans la crise : regard sur la situation de la diaspora africaine

When the financial crisis erupted september 2008 in the United States through the mortgage crisis, it rapidly evolved towards a deep economic crisis with effects similar to a powerful cluster bomb. Very few analysts had predicted the dramatic or even catastrophic proportions of the crisis today. The world is not only submerged in the crisis, it is now engaged in the collapse of some of the strongest symbols that characterized economic success. Toyota for the first time in its long history, presented a balance sheet deficit (three billion dollars in losses), and many prestigious institutions have closed their doors. All the ingredients that led to the surge of bold technological innovations during the past twenty years and a tremendous increase in the volume of trade went into red numbers.

Rich countries which once were locomotives of the idea of the business development, production and management, have now adapted a low profile. Disorientation is rampant, both literally and figuratively. Obama was expected to be the messiah who would with his charisma alone, turn this situation around and enable the world economy to take off once again. For him, we have sung, danced, and implored heaven. Nothing happened that could change the course of the tragedy that people are now living, even people that live in countries that less than two years ago, considered out of reach of the crisis, super consumers, sufficiently socially protected and confident in their government systems and state of the economy.

An evening spent in front of a television in any country in Europe can announce the extent of woes resulting from the crisis. Bankruptcies follow one another, entire sectors of activity are affected and in danger of extinction, unemployment has reached levels of alert everywhere, households are heavily indebted and government aid is not sufficient. During the month of January, France has registered 45,000 more unemployed, bringing the total to 270,000 for a whole year. The figures for Europe are simply frightening, while for the United States, the situation has progressed beyond reviews and disasters.

Back to xenophobia and protectionism

What is serious in this bleak picture is that nothing reassuring is expected for the coming months. On the contrary, the specialists in their most optimistic forecasts, see only darkness in the short term.
In this context, another crisis, far more serious and more confusing, affects in particularl African immigrants, whether naturalized, legal or clandestine. We know that when things turn bad it is first the immigrant at which fingers are aimed. If someone has to pay a high price, it iwill first be the one who comes from abroad. Oh, if only things could be limited to a simple temporary problem, or to the level of each individual. What is worrying, is the rise of xenophobia. Across Europe, the sounds of the hunt for foreigners surfaces and find echo in official circlesl.
Because they are helpless, European governments seem unable to stop or counteract discriminatory feelings which rise from the hearts of people afffected by the crisis. Worse, some leaders no longer hesitate to openly advocate protectionism. But who says protectionism, says xenophobia, bias and exclusion. To understand our focus, we need to view them in the reality of the life of theAfrican diaspora of no less than twenty million people in Europe and America. In this number, you must include workers, students, eternal trainees and all those who do not really know why they are in these countries.
If one takes only students from poor families who are forced to play with odd jobs to support their studies, the crisis has caused some real cataclysm. Job losses are increasing and the sleepless nights have replaced the hopes of returning home within a year, two or three years. It must also include young professionals, those who completed, were engaged in the search for savings. It is no longer possible for many to consider projects, or even make the leap into other dreams. It's hard and too hard for most. The situation of illegal immigrants arrived with short-stay visas is beyond description. It's suicide and you meet those who present all characteristics of alienation. In these conditions, the time has come no longer to question the reasons for immigration. A significant number of Africans is objectively in the situation of persons at risk requiring support, care, assistance.

The responsibility of African governments

Traditional international law establishes an intimate relationship and unity between the individual and the State whose nationality the person bares. In fact, there is between you and your country, the authorities of your country and you, a dialectical relationship that creates a constraint, the sum of obligations beyond that which the average person can imagine. While it is easy to argue that individuals are free to enjoy their freedom of movement, to settle outside their national borders, to live the life and activities of their choice under the laws of the host country, this possibility does not diminish the obligation of protection and assistance of the State vis-à-vis its citizens, which carries both a purely legal, but also moral and psychological criteria.
The behavior of African states vis-a-vis their nationals abroad is a disgrace, an intolerable injustice, a demonstration of chronic irresponsibility. Most have just barely a real political dialogue and leadership, yet the African diaspora is composed mostly of young people under 40 years or 35 years, and these individuals are often highly qualified. African leaders give the impression of not caring at all about the strategic importance and the contribution of these tens of thousands of doctors, engineers, professors and doctors who work in factories, hospitals and universities abroad.
In fact, we discover through this lightness the nature of most African regimes and their fear of the returning demanding,politicized executives, who at the same time demand change. How could one explain otherwise the obscurantism, the resentment and stupidity, the lack of political support and ownership of vast human resources that are stowed away in Europe and America? It's not with joy in their hearts that these young people now live and die far from their country of origin. Many suffer permanent tragedy of neglect and poorly digest this deadly form of nostalgia.

Emergency measures and a policy framework

It is urgent to take advantage of the current economic crisis to undertake bold initiatives to ensure and encourage the return of African professionals to their countries of origin. A simple declaration of intent would be a big step and an expression of solidarity, recognition and fellowship. Africans do not leave their country with the intention to dwell abroad, they are rather upset and frustrated by both the negative development in their countries of origin and the emotioanl, professional and academic constraints of their immediate environment . African governments must make every effort to be accountable to their expatriate nationals and encourage their return.
In this context, the recognition of dual nationality, of the right to vote, creating a department specifically responsible for the diaspora and practical home country of those who return are among the most immediate steps to take . We need to both facilitate the integration of returnees and provide an opportunity for those who develop businessplans to ensure they achieve them without too much red tape, or tax policies. We must put an end to the suspicion, ostracism and negative indexation of the diaspora. If only 50% of African professionals returned home, the continent would witness an exponential transformation and solve many of its problems in less than five years. But first the basic condition for the construction of an effective institutional framework, actually transparent and democratic, has to be satisfied.

Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme is a consultant on international law and a columnist for Le Messager, a Cameroonian daily, where a version of this article first appeared on 05-02-2009.

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